Listening to monologues my eighth graders have written, I sometimes hear the natural aversion of youth to age. In a catalog of things that bug her, one girl includes how annoying it is to get stuck behind slow, saggy old people at the mall, and I smile. They write such things artlessly, and few of them stop to think—wait—Ms. Dubrava’s old. Those few glance at me quickly and quickly look away.
These thirteen-year-olds are used to me. Pardon: most have now turned fourteen and would abhor my saying otherwise. I’ve been their teacher nearly a semester, a significant period in their lives. Some of them have fallen in and out of love twice during that time. I’m lucky they notice me at all with such drama underway. Besides, I try to behave in a way that distracts them from remembering I’m old. I take them on brisk walks to a nearby park to write about nature or casually admit that profanity, judiciously used, may have a place in a good piece of writing.
Because I clearly remember my own, I don’t take offense at their biased age references. My adolescent years occurred mainly in Vero Beach, Florida. I recall walking on the beach with my boyfriend, passing senior citizens and feeling a slight repulsion. Those blooming bellies, drooping butts, jellied arms and thighs! “Gross,” I probably thought, since that was a word of the moment among the young. I don’t remember. What I do recall is vowing: “I am never going to let myself look like that.”
Well, of course. I was young and firm of flesh, without having to do anything. No exercise, no diet. How could it ever be any different? And I must have thought, as do the eighth graders in my classroom now, that the appalling appearance in a bathing suit was a choice. Why, those people must have let themselves age.
Whenever I do remind the children that I’m old, they say dismissively, “Oh, no, Ms. D, you’re not.” It is a wise child who flatters she who controls his grades. But, it is also saying: “we’re making an exception for you. We don’t like saggy old people, but we like you.”
One redeeming thing about the children is they are still, at this age, relatively bias-free, at least when it comes to their teachers. Here are the key questions: Do you like them? Do you know what you’re doing in the classroom? If the answer to those two questions is yes, then they’ll think you’re fine, whether you’re old, young, or have recurring halitosis.
This matter of age discrimination makes me recall the Chicanos. Back in the movimiento days of the seventies, I was frequently the only gringa in a group of friends. Giving me a hug, they would say, “you’re not white anymore: you’re one of us.”
I was always flattered then too. But, when you think about it, it’s prejudice, isn’t it? Unpacking that attitude results in acceptance dependent on pretending you’re not who you are. Same with the kids, who if they have decided they like me, deny my being so many decades different. But like ethnicity, these decades do indeed generate difference.
I suppose it’s our natural bias to like those who resemble us, to look askance on those who do not. A girl entered my classroom wearing earbuds, mouthing words. She realized that a girl she didn’t know was singing along to the same song. Squealing with delight, they finished the lyrics together, gushed about how much they loved that song and declared each other best friends forever.
Like some others, I veered off in another direction, attraction to those unlike me. Witness my years in black and Chicano communities, or my pleasure in hanging out with eighth graders now. I imagine this “opposites attract” trait defines Americans opposed to building border walls. Perhaps it’s also a feature of a new generation: my students, born in 2002, are accepting of the range of ethnicities and genders in their midst. One girl has declared herself Lesbian. “We love you,” they say. “Do you like camping? We heard that Lesbians like camping.” It is the world they live in and I enjoy being there.
We wrote list poems this semester, one variation being a set of instructions. One of the boys wrote “How to be a good person,” but his was mostly a list of prohibitions as it turned out. Don’t ignore your friends’ texts. Don’t forget to do your homework. Things like that. It also included, “don’t tell your grandmother she’s wrinkly.” We all giggled.